Why tell stories? According to Ruth Steiner, when we find a story that grips us, we must tell it; we are to seize it by the reins and not exorcise it from our mouths until it is all on the page. Why did Plumb Theatre decide on this story for their sixth production? That is the question I find myself asking as I sit in the audience.
Collected Stories was written in 1996 by American playwright Donald Margulies. Set in the early 90s and spanning the course of six years, it revolves around two women at opposite stages of life – Ruth Steiner (Elizabeth Hawthorne), a respected writer and teacher, and Lisa Morrison (Michelle Blundell), her young protégé. It ponders on the nature of authorship, time and ageing, albeit in a sort of meandering way.
Despite pretty solid performances from Hawthorne and Morrison, I initially found it difficult to really engage with the story, waiting for it to get to some kind of point. While there were some funny and tense moments, the tone felt a little flat and samey. Though the dialogue was usually fast-paced and snappy, almost in a stylised way (which perhaps kept me at arm’s length from the characters), the pace of the story felt slow and bloated. With the black-and-white footage of 90s New York accompanied by jazz that played before the show began, the play was reading like a tepid romanticisation of a bygone era. And perhaps this was intentional on the part of director Paul Gittins, mirroring the style of Ruth’s apartment with its piles of old books and stuffy furniture (designed by John Parker). Perhaps the atmosphere was created to be from Ruth’s perspective. But, even if so, this felt to me like a tired perspective, without much new or interesting to say.
I kept asking myself: Why is this story – this collection of episodes in the lives of two women – worth my time? If I hadn’t been writing this review, I would have seriously considered leaving during the act break. But I’m glad I didn’t.
The second half is where things finally come to a head, where the conflict between the characters holds weight and stakes, where Hawthorne and Blundell’s performances really shine, and where the play’s themes at last become apparent. The power dynamic between Ruth and Lisa has flipped, and this threatens to tear down the love and care they have built over their six years together. Lisa has written her first novel, using the story of Ruth’s affair with famous writer Delmore Schwartz without her permission. But it is not only this injustice that might destabilise their relationship, it is also the nature of time itself. Ruth (now ill) is approaching the end of life just as Lisa is beginning hers. This relentless cycle of time is emphasised by the similarity of Lisa’s entrance in the first and last scenes (unable to enter, shouting to Ruth through the walls). Here Gittins uses the space cleverly, incorporating the kitchenette on the side of the Pitt Street Theatre stage into Ruth’s apartment.
The script blends fact and fiction by bringing Schwartz, a real-life poet and writer, into the mix, imagining the fictitious character of Ruth having had a complicated relationship with Schwartz when she was a young woman and he was in his final days (the dynamics of time again). The staging furthers this, with the aforementioned use of space creating a sense of realism. The actors even hold bound and printed copies of Lisa’s novel, leading me to wonder whether these characters were actually historical figures. Margulies wants us to examine the way we use real life – the lives of ourselves and others – when we write stories, to ask what this blurring of lines means for questions of ownership, and who gets to tell which stories. It’s an interesting question that we are grappling with in today’s media landscape – am I allowed to tell a story about an ethnic group, gender, sexuality that I do not belong to, and should I? I only wish the question had been posed earlier in the play, so that it might have been more deeply explored.
The story of Ruth and Lisa ends unresolved, with the question of their relationship hanging in the air, just as it does in Ruth’s story of the two women who bake cakes together (a clear allegory for her time with Lisa). I think this is a smart choice – it feels only natural for the story and the characters. It is somewhat ironic, since Lisa was disappointed by the ending of Ruth’s story and her character is similarly bereft at the end of the play. But, as Ruth says, that’s real life – and it certainly feels more satisfying (to me) than if there had been a further scene where they have some big, contrived resolution.
There should be nothing arbitrary in our stories, is what Ruth tells Lisa early in the play. The show does hold true to this maxim, with all the conversations between these two women converging and coming to fruition in the final scene. The problem with the script is that everything feels arbitrary until this point. I think the experience could have worked better if the show had been the 1 hour, 40 minutes with no interval that was advertised on iTicket (not the 2 hours with an interval that I experienced). This might have helped iron out those kinks, by pressing on relentlessly (like time itself) to the play’s conclusion.
If you’re looking for something intimate and subtle, a slow-paced turn to the past as an antidote to our fast-paced modern life, then Collected Stories is for you. While I think the script has its issues, the story is ultimately one that is worth sticking around to the end for.
Collected Stories is presented by Plumb Theatre and plays Pitt Street theatre 6 July to 24 July, 2022.